So many records to hear in year, and so many more to miss. The imbalance becomes greater every year, but to find 20 that you really like at least constitutes a good effort. So with a shrug, I am happy to present 20 very nice records …
1. Super Furry Animals “Rings Around The World” (Beggars Xl Recording)
It’s not all that often that a true indie band is around long enough to stumble through the uneven but promising early records before stumbling onto something truly brilliant. Add to that that: 1) the band is Welsh and 2) plays a kind of orchestral rock that, at times, echos “Pet Sounds” and then becomes Pink Floyd on uppers, and 3) ultimately mixes it all up with the best elements of any number of now forgotten psychedelic pop bands. “Rings” is a complicated genre-bending album for record store rats and amateur musicologists who enjoy catching each song’s subtle allusion almost as much as they enjoy the kooky songs themselves. This is a pill that some will swallow with a smile and others with a gag, but if you ask me it couldn’t be more worth the risk.
2. Solomon Burke – “Don’t Give Up On Me” (Fat Possum/Anti)
Even though Solomon Burke has been making music a lot longer than I’ve been alive, for most people “Don’t Give Up On Me” will be a truly glorious introduction to one of the sweetest voices in all of music. Like the incredible final Ted Hawkins record that I stumbled upon almost ten years ago (“The Next Hundred Years”), Burke’s soulful, understated album is a wonderful remnant of a bygone age. Featuring songs written for him by Dylan, Van Morrison, Brian Wilson, Elvis Costello and Tom waits, and magnificently produced by Joe Henry, “Don’t Give up On Me” is a minor masterpiece focused squarely on Burke’s delicious vocals accompanied primarily by some gentle guitar chords and a rolling organ. Somewhere amidst a sea of overproduced electronic music, and derivative guitar jams, this is a record to cherish, and to play and play and play again.
3. Sandre Lerche – Faces Down (Source/Astralwerks)
Like some sort of teenage new age Norwegian John Lennon, Sandre Lerche’s full-length debut ambles so confidently through an acoustic pop paradise that it sounds like both an anachronism and a relic. Sharing much in common with Canada’s finest modern folk-rocker Ron Sexsmith, the sometimes pretty sometimes trippy folk pop ditties on “Faces Down” represent a truly amazing accomplishment since that the artist was only nineteen when he recorded them. Bathed in strings, brass quiet acoustic guitar, it would be easy to mistake many of the songs as sadly overlooked outtakes from late 60’s Beatles records. Fortunately for us, even if the young Lerche burned out at the age of forty that would still leave us with twenty more years to watch him grow into a man.
4. Radar Brothers – “And The Surrounding Mountains” (Merge)
The Radar Brothers have been making good solid records for years, but this time around they have created a real mope-rock classic. Filled with sweeping guitar and keyboard symphonies that rise and fall like the band’s native, golden brown California hills. The quiet almost hushed vocals, which exist somewhere between Simon and Garfunkel and Pink Floyd, create a kind of comfortably eerie peacefulness. And if you can pry yourself away from the hypnotic spell that the album casts you’ll hear a Faulkneresque tale in the songs of album about family where the “Sisters,” “Uncles,” “Mothers,” and others disappear becoming characters in a old fashioned mystery. This is truly an irresistible diamond in the rough.
5. Flaming Lips – Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (WB)
Another zany, beautiful piece orchestral rock from the finest pop band ever to emerge from Oklahoma. Just when you thought they couldn’t possible follow up 1999s phenomenal “Soft Bulletin,” Yoshimi is another quill in what is becoming a catalog of diverse and wonderful albums for those just slightly off the beaten track. With songs derived from everyone from Cat Stevens to Pink Floyd, the Lips brand of catchy kitsch led by the vocals abilities of the great Wayne Coyne the band just keeps getting better.
6. The Reindeer Section – The Son of Evil Reindeer (Bright star Recordings)
The cast and crew of The Reindeer Section is a veritable who’s who of Scotland’s modern folk-pop scene. Members of Teenage Fanclub, Arab Strap, Belle and Sebastian kick out some of the finest acoustic jewels in many years. In the hands of almost any artist on the 2002 Billboard 200 these songs could have become shamelessly cheesy, but thankfully there are no New Kids in the highlands of the UK. This is an album bathed in a fireside warmth that just seems to get under your skin from the few strums, and one I can guarantee you’ll only have to share with the few lucky souls that found this true diamond in the rough.
7. Beck – Sea Change (Geffen)
If one were to scan the modern musical landscape for an artist capable of profound versatility and reinvention, the only real candidate to emerge during the 90’s was Beck. Driven more by a desire to evolve rather than to merely sell records, “Sea Change” represents last year’s most sublime and quietly powerful effort. For those in the mood to dance, however, beware this record is primarily a mildly psychedelic acoustic folk record, which sounds more like “Mutations” or his early blues masterpiece “One Foot in the Grave” than it does “Odelay” or “Midnight Vultures.” With a stroke of understated excellence Beck continues to prove that in addition to being, among other things, a top music scholar, pop culture archivist, and reluctant star, he is also a truly gifted songwriter and musician with an endless desire to challenge expectations and make long for the next chapter.
8. Interpol – Turn On the Bright Lights (Matador)
There was a sound that I remember from my teenage years, a dark gothic form of punk rock, a blurry attitude soaked swagger perfected by bands like Joy Division, The Fall, The Cure and Echo and The Bunnymen – it made me fall in love in music. Interpol is a lushly loud, intensely addictive tribute those watery soundscapes of the pre-MTV generation. Now twenty years later there is Interpol, the much-hyped New York answer to last years New York answer The Strokes. Where the Strokes was a new take on an old thing, Interpol is a new take on a new take. Maybe this is a subtlety that I am only imagining, because I long for that initial and innocent first exposure to the underground. Whatever the case may be, this starkly beautiful album will make some people smile for quite a while.
9. Mali Music – Afel Bocolim, Damon Albarn and Friends (Astralwerks)
Damon Albarn, the brainchild behind the obnoxiously brilliant Brit pop band Blur, left the UK a while back to travel to Mali to capture music recorded with the country’s finest musicians. But much of the uniqueness achieved on this record has more to do with the incredible editing that took place thousands of miles away in a London Studio. Albarn has painted a kind of an aural mosaic culled from fifty hours of raw tapes, extracting the musings of birds, strumming of guitars, gentle percussion and other local elements, and adding to it his own perfectly restrained vocals and at other quiet electronic elements. In the end this record is kind of like a dream, where if you close your eyes, you’ll find yourself transported to your own private Africa – a place as exotic as you dare imagine it to be.
10. Beth Orton – Daybreaker (Astralwerks)
There is almost nothing quite like the elegant, dreamy folk-pop of Britain’s Beth Orton. For three impeccable full-length records, Orton has blessed the stereos of aging hipsters like myself with a blissful canopy of coffee shop euphoria. Yes these songs are highly accessible, like Joni Mitchell was back when I was still in diapers, but I wouldn’t dare hold it against her. How could I when a record like “Daybreaker” is powerful enough to lull a baby to sleep, while at the same time managing to transport a distracted adult from the pressures or a mundane work-a-day world. These ten songs glide along on a bed of clouds, mesmerizing, elevating and hypnotizing you with an effortless vocal and orchestral parade.
11. Saint Germain Café: The Finest Electro-Jazz Compilation … an overlooked 2001 jewel
Technically this is a 2001 record (late 2002 to be exact) but seeing that I missed it last year and it was easily one of my primary staples in 2002, I hope you allow me this exception. Floating well above the electronica records available at Starbucks and Banana Republic, this is truly a jazz purist/electronic zealot dream. A French DJ compilation featuring remixes of songs by Jazzanova, Taxi, Terry Collier and others, that bops and bounces along on a cushion of trumpets, bass beats, marimba and drums, mixing a wondrous array of vocals that would have Keroauc and company snapping in there graves. This is both “real jazz” for old timers and the ultimate cocktail mix for horn-rimmed literary types. Like a drug you can’t seem to get enough of, this is album that should have come with a surgeon’s general warning on it, I am still hopelessly addicted.
12. Hem – Rabbit Songs (Bar None) … another overlooked 2001 jewel
The greatest thing that could happen at the end of a long night of drinking or thinking, or fighting or flirting would be for someone to throw “Rabbit Songs” on the stereo. This Brooklyn group featuring the most soothing female vocals in many years, fuses a gentle mix of country and traditional folk into a wonderful hybrid. Filled with quietly sliding guitars, mandolin and acoustic bass, this is a small miracle that everyone should be so lucky to hear.
But by all means please do not forget …
13. Doves – The Last Broadcast (Heavenly/Capitol)
Rock-pop so bright and immediately catchy that you almost feel guilty getting hooked so quickly.
14. Costeau – Sirenna (Palm Pictures)
More elegant, smoky crooning – a successful cross between the Tindersticks and Frank Sinatra.
15. Elbow – Asleep In the Back (V2)
Lilting, melodic pop songs drifting in a ice smoky haze.
16. LemonJelly – Lost Horizons (XL/Beggars Banquet)
Freaky, cheeky, mildly danceable British DJ brilliance.
17. Neil Halsted – Sleeping On Roads (4AD)
Quiet meandering folk pop from the sensitive artist who brought you Slowdive and Mojave 3.
18. Bright Eyes – The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear In The Ground (Saddle Creek)
A new kind of Bob Dylan for the lo-fi, DIY basement tape singer-songwriter generation.
19. Vermont – Calling Albany (Kindercore)
Quirky, unassuming pop songs about everyone from Larry Bird to Harrison Ford.
20. Royskopp – Melody A.M. (Astralwerks)
Dreamy electronic soundtrack music from another incredible Norwegian duo.